An Editorial by Rami Genauer
As UFC 35 came to a close on January 11, 2002, a glance at the list of UFC champions at the time indicated something of a convergence of styles. In an era dominated by ground fighters, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes and Murilo Bustamante stood on top of the heap mainly due to their work on the mat rather than their efforts on the feet. Lightweight champ Jens Pulver, a stand-up fighter, stood out as the exception rather than the rule.
Now, nearly five years and 30 numbered UFC events later, the championship landscape looks quite different. Chuck Liddell and Tim Sylvia reign over their divisions on the strength of powerful striking and takedown defense while Anderson Silva has just shown America what technical mastery of Muay Thai can do inside the Octagon.
If George St. Pierre can best Matt Hughes and Sylvia can hold off Jeff Monson next month at UFC 65, the roster of UFC belt holders will be a perfect reverse image of itself circa 2002: Four champions well-versed in striking, with the lightweight champ, wrestler Sean Sherk, standing as the odd fighter out.
Empirically, trends like this exist in every sport where successful strategies lead to counter-strategies. There was a time when it looked like bruising running backs like Christian Okoye and Craig “Ironhead” Hayworth would run roughshod over the NFL. Naturally, teams adjusted by employing larger defensive linemen to stuff the run. This in turn led to greater use of versatile, pass-catching backs, which led to a revival of the 3-4 defensive set, etc., etc.
The same could be seen as happening at the elite level of MMA, where the balance of power seems to have swung back in favor of strikers. Having learned to sprawl effectively, avoid submissions and get up quickly if taken to the ground, the elite strikers have employed a strategy that allows them to stay upright just long enough to deliver a finishing blow.
It has been said that 80% of fights end up on the ground, but 100% of fights start on the feet. If a fighter can’t keep a superior striker down – it’s been a year since either Chuck Liddell or Mirko CroCop was on his back for any appreciable amount of time – it’s only a matter of time before that fighter takes an unscheduled nap.
The implications of this trend are especially profound for the UFC. Witnessing the shambles that is the American boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai scene, it is no surprise that the best strikers in the world come from other countries.
Unfortunately, the UFC has made a devil’s bargain: On the one hand, it would undoubtedly prefer to have personable, eloquent English-speaking champions. On the other hand, it has fed its newest fans a steady diet of striking-heavy matches, touted Griffin vs. Bonnar as one of the greatest fights ever, and has produced four separate volumes of Ultimate Knockouts while having no such highlight reel for submissions. Chicks might dig the long ball, but new UFC fans dig the KO. So with new and casual fans thirsting for superior strikers rather than slick submission artists or masters of the ground and pound, where is the UFC to turn?
Facing the reality that the fighters most likely to thrill its fans are foreign-born and given the generally superior level of striking of those international athletes, the UFC may soon be looking to employ some more translators.
In the longer term, it is reasonable to assume that wrestlers will adjust their techniques, training regimens and game plans to reflect a new reality, just as NFL defenses did. The dominant participatory contact sport among American youth is still amateur wrestling, and as MMA grows in popularity, we could see a greater number of elite wrestlers transition to mixed martial arts.
The UFC has already broached this trend through “The Ultimate Fighter,” which included one relatively raw but superlative wrestler in each of its first three seasons. While it remains to be seen whether inserting Josh Koscheck (two pre-TUF fights), Rashad Evans (five pre-TUF fights) and Matt Hamill (one pre-TUF fight) into the UFC at such an early stage in their development will help or hurt their careers, it is certain that including wrestlers of their caliber in the organization brings preeminence in the UFC a little closer to the side of the grappling.
In the end, the true beneficiaries of the tug-of-war between competing styles are MMA fans, regardless of the repercussions for the UFC’s marketing department in the immediate future.
Both strikers and wrestlers can produce exhilarating fights and we are likely to see a greater number of exciting fights as the quality of MMA fighters improves.
For now, with striking the way it is and the UFC showing a willingness to bring in top international talent to face its champions, it gives fans the opportunity to cheer for the best fighter, independent of his nationality.
No matter what the post-fight interview sounds like, fans will cheer if the fighter is good and his fights are exciting. After all, everyone punches in the same language.